art, media, social justice

Miley Cyrus, Feminism, Sexuality, and Appropriation

All right, so I’m jumping on a bandwagon here. Although you can hardly call it jumping when every embarrassing click you’ve made in the last month has had the words Miley and twerking in the title. You don’t have to admit it, I know it’s true.

The scandal that is Miss Achey Breakey, Jr. has been all over the news: everyone wants to talk about her risque ensembles, her ‘risque’ dance moves, and her seemingly constantly-visible tongue.  Even some more respectable news sources have gotten in on the action, discussing her “appropriation of black culture” and everyone wants to talk about whether it’s racist. Or not. Or Racist. Or Feminist. Or Not.

In the widely touted open letter from Sinead O’Connor, the musical legend warns Cyrus against allowing herself to be “prostituted” by the men in the industry. Despite being fairly patronizing in tone, O’Connor seemed to have Cyrus’s best interest at heart at first, though this quickly devolved into petty rudeness on both sides with tweets from Miley and in three  subsequent letters penned by O’Connor. Plus Amanda Palmer wrote an open letter response to O’Connor, arguing that Miley is in charge of her own show, and has a right to be doing what she’s doing as her own brand of feminism.  (Suffice to say, the whole open letter thing is getting to be a bit much.)

What these two very famous women musicians address is primarily the sexuality of the female music artist, and how that sexuality relates to feminism. Now I’m all about subverting the male gaze and making sure that men and women understand that women have more going on than just being nice bodies. But I also believe that feminism in the modern day does, as Palmer suggests, allow for women, and men, to create and own their own relationships to their bodies and their sexuality. So, while I very much admire Sinead O’Connor’s choice to shave her head early in her career so that people would have to deal with her as a person, rather than a sexy singer-object, I also admire Amanda Palmer’s choice to drop her record label when they told her she was too fat to wear just a bra in a music video, and to get naked whenever she feels like it. Go Amanda, I love you.

But we’re talking about Miley. Particularly, how people are choosing to talk about Miley in the media. And it is notable to me that neither of these edgy, female, white, musicians is talking about the racial implications of Miley Cyrus’s recent performances. Writer Renee Martin noted that the scandal of Miley’s sexually charged performances only seems to be a scandal because it threatens the idea of what an “appropriate performance of white womanhood consists of” by incorporating “the dangerous sexualities of cultures of color.” With a good deal of scorn, she notes, “filth, ratchet, ghetto and animalistic sexuality is something which apparently should be left for black women.” In other words, if Miley Cyrus were being all sexified and nude in a more conventionally white way, it wouldn’t be a problem. Which to me is a huge problem.

As far as racial critiques go, Cyrus’s performance at the VMA’s and her music videos are frequently being compared to Madonna’s Vogue video and Gwen Stefani’s use of “Harajuku girls”; essentially, that these white performers are using an “other” race as a background on which to frame their own, white, stories. At least one article claims that the appropriation of another culture is just a step many white performers take to a financial end. Several have used the word “slumming” to describe Cyrus’s relationship with ratchet culture, and at least one writer is bemoaning the idea that white performers are now outselling black performers in hip hop.

One thing I find both intriguing and off-putting about a lot of the critiques of Cyrus is that the term “appropriation” is being used as though it is automatically bad. I have a hard time with the idea that because Cyrus is white, she shouldn’t be allowed to participate in a culture that she finds appealing. Cyrus claims that she feels a personal affinity to the culture she is appropriating. She says that the people who appear onstage with her and in her videos are “her homies,” not her accessories.  Does it even matter if I believe her? If she wanted to populate her videos with only white women twerking, she would still be accused of cultural appropriation, and people would still say she was racist for not including any black people in her video.

This fantastic article by aforementioned Renee Martin suggests that, culturally, we believe in “good” and “bad” forms of appropriation–taking as her example Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, she says, “Only when whiteness can claim a “positive agenda” are such acts of blatant appropriation presented as good.” Martin suggests that Gilbert, no better than Cyrus, is using cultures of color to “get attention” and “lend legitimacy” to her art. This is really problematic to me, because Martin seems to suggest that there is no acceptable way to participate in cultures of color if you are white. But what does that actually entail? Should white performers simply avoid all things associated with non-white cultures in an attempt not to be offensive to anyone? Maybe they should make a point to stick to only “conventionally white” things (what does that even mean?), thereby perpetuating the racial problems in today’s society: a society so culturally segregated that every time someone does something that is traditionally done by people who don’t look like them, people on both sides of the divide accuse them of racism.

(Added to this whole thing is the fact that it’s not actually accurate to say Cyrus is appropriating “black” culture, when not all black people consider themselves part of the culture Cyrus is appropriating. For example, several of these black feminists didn’t even know what twerking was until everyone freaked out over Miley’s performance at the VMAs.)

If you click any of the hyperlinks, you’ll notice I’m using a ton of articles by people who don’t agree with me to write this post. That’s because I think that what’s most important and wonderful about Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs is that it sparked a ton of conversation about feminism and race. A lot of people who were already Miley fans were probably not having those conversations before googling her name brought up articles about whether or not the performance was a minstrel show.

So, ultimately, I appreciate Miley Cirus’s performance at the VMAs for two reasons: 1) it was sexual but not sexy, and I think she’s aware of that, and I want her and all women to have a right to perform their sexual identity however they choose. 2) It sparked a lot of very important and intelligent conversations about race, culture, and appropriation (like this one, and this one) that revolved around a figure in the media with such a wide following of young white people–a lot of whom are probably being exposed to  those conversations for the first time.

Don’t worry, I’m not deceiving myself into believing that Cyrus is so self-aware that she’s trying to shock people with her non-sexy sexuality and cultural appropriation in order to make them have really smart conversations about ideology. I would not be all that surprised if she hasn’t read a single one of the articles discussing the complexity of the choices she’s making as far as gender and race are concerned. And I do think that she would be a better and more interesting performer if she were more informed about those things. But, I am still defending her right to create the kinds of performances she is making, and yes, even saying that I think they’re kind of good for everyone. Like bad-tasting medicine.

Miley Cyrus: a spoonful of bear-flavored fish oil.

Plus she’s actually a pretty good singer.

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2 thoughts on “Miley Cyrus, Feminism, Sexuality, and Appropriation

  1. Evan says:

    Feminism confuses me now – thank you for taking the time to expand on its various interpretations. Really liked this one. Topical, interesting. Boom.

  2. Pingback: Get Spooky with Your Waitress | Almost Activist Waitress

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